Doodad Kind of Town

A Quick Dispatch from Doodad Town
March 19, 2008, 1:13 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Between Holy Week church choir commitments and a killer load of work at the office, I’ve been too exhausted and stretched too thin to do much moviegoing or reviewing lately.

But I’m not ready to roll up the streets of this Doodad Kind of Town just yet. Here’s my lazy list of recent movie-related activity.

— On Saturday, my friend, Mary Ann, and I attended a Hollywood Collector’s Show. These events always take place in the meeting rooms of some local chain hotel. Distributors set up booths and sell movie posters, autographs, stills, books, and other collectibles. There are also a number of faded celebrities in attendance who will autograph memorabilia or pose for pictures – but only at a price.

Mary Ann managed to surreptitiously snap a cell phone photo of Erik Estrada (of TV’s “CHips” fame) without ponying up the required $20. But she didn’t have the same luck with Margot Kidder; the erstwhile Lois Lane politely told her “not unless you pay” before she could press the button.

Val Kilmer had been the advertised headliner amongst the otherwise mostly sub-D-list celebrities, but he failed to show. Besides Kidder and Estrada, the lineup consisted mainly of actors and actresses from TV shows of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

At past shows, I have chatted with 1940’s child stars Margaret O’ Brien and Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu in “It’s a Wonderful Life”). I also once briefly met and shook hands with the late Chicago Tribune film critic, Gene Siskel (who was not a featured celebrity, but – like me – just there to shop.)

Mary Ann came away with a nicely framed Disney animation cell featuring Tinkerbell, while I brought home nothing but an autographed first edition of gossip columnist Liz Smith’s autobiography and a special edition DVD of “Mommie Dearest.” All in all, it was a bit of a bust.

— There’s a new batch of films on IFC OnDemand this month, so when I’m too tired to get to a multiplex, at least I can see something new. Unfortunately, I chose badly this weekend.

“Beautiful Ohio” – yet unreleased in theaters – marks the directorial debut of Chad Lowe (yes, that’d be the former Mr. Hilary Swank and Rob’s little brother.) It gives me no joy to tell you that’s it’s a strange, nearly incomprehensible mess. The fact that it hasn’t been released may be a mercy.

“Beautiful Ohio” is a coming-of-age story and a dysfunctional family drama all in one. Set in Cleveland in the early 1970s, it centers on the family of teenage math prodigy, Clive Messerman(David Call). We know Clive is a genius because he’s moody and sullen and his hair falls over his eyes and he speaks to his friend, Elliott, in what appears to be a made-up language. His sensitive younger brother, William (Brett Davern), both adores and envies him, and tries to keep everyone happy. Their father is an insurance salesman who fancies himself a failed poet or a failed intellectual or a failed something – it’s kind of hard to tell and I’m not sure even the screenwriter has a solid idea of what this man originally intended to be. William Hurt plays him as though he is perpetually stoned and in his own world (which makes the scene in which he actually does get stoned a bit hard to distinguish from the rest of his life.) Rita Wilson is the brittle, competitive mother, who pins all her hopes on Clive winning a state math championship.

Both Hurt’s and Wilson’s characters are deeply unlikable, unsympathetic – and finally incomplete. They have plenty of actorly tics and eccentricities, but there’s no discernible subtext for their behaviors and no sense of a relationship history between the two of them. Call’s moody genius and Davern’s sweet, sensitive young man are similarly hollow characters.

And what the film lacks in thoughtful characterization, it does NOT make up for in plot. The screenplay seems to have been assembled in some alternative, bizzarro universe, very much unlike our own. Math contests improbably take place in gymnasiums with contestants sitting at desks in a small circle, and parents and friends watching from the bleachers in rapt attention as they struggle through theoretical equations. (Or whatever they struggle through – I always hated math myself.) Sometimes, though, spectators aren’t allowed at all. During one contest, Clive’s mother, brother and girlfriend (Michelle Trachtenberg) sit outside on the school steps shivering and clutching hot thermoses of coffee in the bitter Cleveland winter. Surely they could have hung out in the hallway?! )

For reasons that are never explained, Trachtenberg secretly moves into the Messerman’s basement, sleeping on a mattress and allowing William to sneak her food from the kitchen. No one seems to catch on – or to care, at least.

And the film’s “surprise” ending literally comes out of nowhere. It’s obviously meant to pack a huge emotional wallop, but all it does is frustrate and baffle you in a “where the hell did THAT come from?” way. (And the climatic revelation scene is particularly poorly directed, with a reaction shot of Clive that lasted so long, I thought my cable transmission had gone dead.)

And if “Beautiful Ohio” was written by space aliens, it was surely edited by a madman. There are some truly bizarre cutaways to reaction shots of Rita Wilson scattered throughout this film, most of which seem to have nothing to do with the scene they’re inserted into. One of the strangest occurs after the above-mentioned scene on the school steps. There is a direct cut from this scene to Clive working on a math problem at a desk, then an abrupt cut to Wilson – now indoors without her hat or coat and gazing intently, ostensibly at her son. But where the hell is she? It’s impossible to tell if she’s in the school or at home, and after this shot, we’ve cut away to a whole new scene.

There’s a germ of a decent film hiding inside “Beautiful Ohio,” but it would take several rewrites – and a director far more skilled than the novice Chad Lowe – to bring it to light.

3 Comments so far
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HI P-Oh Chad Lowe. He was my first “star crush”….well besides Greg Evigan –from BJ and The Bear and Greg Brady. Chad used to be on a show called “Spencer” and I loved him. Everyone else loved Rob, but I only had eyes for Chad…however–his movie roles/endeavors have been less than stellar. I think the last thing I liked him in was “Life Goes On”. That was a great show. I loved Corky.Hope you are doing well. Things here are crazy.xo

Comment by Parisjasmal

Oh I wanted to ask you also if you have seen “Kike Like Me” on Sundance? I watched it in the middle of the night the other day (er night) and I am not sure what to think. Wanted your opinion.Have a great day!

Comment by Parisjasmal

I forgot about Chad Lowe being on “Life Goes On” – the only thing I can ever remember him from is “ER” where he was the doctor who was allergic to latex. I don’t even remember if that was a guest shot or a regular role.I don’t get Sundance anymore – what is “Kike Like Me” about?

Comment by Pat

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